Features > Arts

1 April 2020

Alexander Moffat is an artist and former head of painting at Glasgow School of Art. Sandy’s portrait of Alasdair hangs on display at Glasgow’s Òran Mór venue, at the top of Byres Road.

Painting Alasdair Gray

The death last year of Alasdair Gray robbed Scotland of one its greatest literary talents. Alexander Moffat recalls their discussions when Alasdair sat for his portrait

TOWARDS the end of 2009, Davie Laing, on behalf of the Democratic Left Scotland, asked if I’d like to tackle a portrait of Alasdair Gray. My initial response “Not everyone wishes to have their portrait painted by me” was immediately countered by Davie’s “he’s already agreed”. “In that case, I’d better get started” I replied. After telephoning Alasdair we settled on Saturday morning sessions in his Glasgow west end flat. His large drawing room/studio proved an ideal space for working in and without further ado Alasdair sat down in his favourite arm chair, pushed a button and an extension appeared providing support for his legs and feet. An ideal pose … only time would tell.

Taking up a position opposite I spent the first morning making pencil studies of legs and arms and sandals, while noting the various objects surrounding Alasdair’s chair. A couple of small round-topped tables, bookcases, a reading lamp, portfolios and, in prominent positions on the walls, a Saltire with the inscription “wha dare meddle wi me” and a facsimile of the Declaration of Arbroath which spoke of Alasdair’s life long commitment to Scottish independence. Some of these would make it into the composition, others wouldn’t.

True to form, on my arrival a week later Alasdair had forgotten I was coming. Confusion reigned for a minute or so, but, with a little help from his wife Morag, he was soon able to resume posing. For Henri Cartier-Bresson a portrait was an attempt to capture the inner silence of the willing victim. With this in mind and now working with pastels and colour, I began to grasp how Alasdair might be portrayed.

Allan Ramsay claimed that in order to be a good portraitist one had to be a good conversationalist and I always look forward to the discussions I might have with my sitter. Alasdair was in full flood from the very beginning and there was hardly any subject on which he didn’t have a point of view. There was a lot of ground to cover starting with favourite painters … Blake, Munch and Van Gogh and then a host of others. I wanted to hear about his Glasgow contemporaries including Alan Fletcher whose tragic death in Italy in 1958 at the age of 28 robbed Glasgow of one of its major talents. This led on to the separate identities of the Edinburgh and Glasgow painting schools in the mid 20th century. They really did pursue very different paths. There was no question his time as a student at Glasgow School of Art had been a crucial one for Alasdair, shaping much of his life and work thereafter.

Moving on to literature there was a vast range of writers and poets to talk about – MacDiarmid of course and the magnitude of his effect on 20th century Scotland and Archie Hind, author of Dear Green Place, his prize-winning debut novel, who first introduced me to Alasdair back in 1970. Sadly, Archie who died in 2008 was never able to get beyond the first chapters of his second novel Fur Sadie. At that time Alasdair was already working on Lanark, trying to pull its many strands together which remained the case until the failure of the 1979 devolution referendum and the arrival of “Thatcherism” demanded a response – and got one, from Scottish artists and writers. Alasdair suddenly found himself “unlocked” and Lanark was published in 1981.

Lanark of course was Alasdair’s greatest achievement on so many levels, including his reclaiming of English for Scottish writers, not as an imperialist language, but in the same way as American or Irish writers do. Alasdair’s drawings and illustrations could be described as pre-modern, more Eric Gill or Aubrey Beardsley than Picasso or Matisse. There was no modernist fracturing - his complex designs are contained within a specific framework. He liked to put a line round everything.

How we became interested in art as schoolboys and what made us determined to pursue such a precarious career was another topic of conversation. Alasdair’s own experiences had been hard for many years - I could sense he was bemused by his late success and the vagaries of the art world. When I told him the film of The Horse’s Mouth, based on Joyce Cary’s novel, had been instrumental in my youthful decision to become an artist I struck a chord. (In the film Alec Guinness played the part of the bohemian artist Gulley Jimson and the wild and garish mural paintings were by John Bratby.) Alasdair loved Cary’s writing and indeed some have commented on the likeness of Duncan Thaw to Gulley Jimson. His enthusiasm for The Horse’s Mouth was infectious.“The end of the film is completely different from that of the novel” he explained and proceeded to quote the final pages of Cary’s novel from memory. That was the kind of thing he was quite capable of doing. On coming to the end of the session Alasdair made me a gift of the Penguin paperback of Cary’s novel and added a bottle of Inverarity blended whisky with one of his own designs on the box for good measure. Not many of my sitters have shown such generosity, especially as at that stage, I had yet to begin the painting.